Entertaining a minority govt

MALAYSIANS are now a little more at ease with the prospect of a change in the federal government. Gone are the days when many quiver at the thought of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) ever falling out of power. Soon, it may be time to get acquainted with the idea of a minority government. 

We can draw some lessons from Canada. There, the New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Jagmeet Singh has managed to get some policy concessions for propping up a minority government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. More on this shortly. 

In Malaysia, at one time, there was no life without BN and the familiar names running the nation. Many elections ago, it was simply unthinkable. Umno, the biggest of the lot in the coalition, was then deemed kebal (impenetrable). 

How the ground has shifted. In a spate of five years since 2018, the nation has seen four prime ministers: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad leading a spectacular Pakatan Harapan (PH) first-round win, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin undertaking a coup under the cover of the pandemic, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob making an internal power grab and now Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim coming to Putrajaya after PH’s second win. 

As we get adjusted to the change in governments, Malaysians may as well start getting used to the idea of a minority government running the nation. We have never had it till now. But it may be a formula for the future. When a party or a coalition wins more than half the Parliament seats, they form a majority government. Malaysia practices a single-member plurality electoral system, also known as first past the post. The person with the most number of votes wins the Parliamentary seat and gets anointed as the MP. We have 222 MPs.

So, you need at least 112 seats to form a majority government. If you manage to cobble a pack post-election, then you still get to run the government. This is called a coalition government. 

That’s what happened in the 15th General Election. PH did not command enough seats on its own, but it managed to spring a surprise coalition government with the backing of BN, led by Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. 

There was another option. They could have formed a minority government, as long as the other parties did not gang up to outnumber them. 

The idea of a minority government may be alien to us, but it’s happening around the world. At this moment, you have minority governments in Canada, Spain, France, Norway and Pakistan. 

Canada is no stranger to minority governments. In the 1960s, Lester B Pearson, the man who kept Canada out of the Vietnam War, ruled with a minority government. In that period, Pearson’s administration reportedly managed to advance national medicare, student loans and the Canada pension programme, some major programmes that impact a wide spectrum of the population. 

Canada again saw a minority government from 2003 to 2006 under Paul Martin and later, Stephen Harper ran the premiership with two Conservative minorities until 2011. 

Most recently, Canada was once again thrusted into a minority government form in 2019 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party could only secure 157 of the 338 seats. They were a dozen seats short of forming a government on their own. The next biggest party was the Conservative with 121 seats. Then came Bloc Québécois (32) and Jagmeet’s NDP (24). 

After running the government for two years, Trudeau went for a snap election in 2021, hoping to come back with a clear majority. But he was out of luck. The voters returned an almost similar result to that of the 2019 polls. 

With 160 seats in hand, Liberals again ruled as a minority government, with political support from NDP that won 25 seats. The Conservatives won 119 seats. 

In March 2022, NDP stepped forward to sign a supply and confidence agreement with the Liberals. In essence, they agreed to support the minority government in key votes until 2025. In return, Liberal promised to support NDP priorities in pharmacare and a national dental-care programme. 

But it did not mean that Jagmeet and his team would cease from attacking the Liberals. It’s politics as usual on that front. 

From the outset, a minority government can be seen to be chaotic. They may not survive the full term: Four years in Canada, five years in Malaysia. They are always under the threat of the rug being pulled from under their feet. 

But it’s not always so, as seen from the Canadian example. While minority governments can be in for a rough ride, done correctly there is a chance that they can deliver. 

A minority government would also be forced to listen more attentively to the Opposition. They would be less inclined to give them the cold shoulder. 

In many past administrations, the minuscule Opposition never really got a fair share of the hearing. They were no more than flower pots of democracy. 

But in a state of minority government rule, the Opposition would matter as they provide the oxygen that allows the ruling party to continue breathing politics. It would force politicians to work together. 

Hence, with just 24 seats, Jagmeet managed to push for some reforms and policies that are dear to his party. The lesson for Malaysians is that the nation can survive, and thrive even, with whatever form of government under our parliamentary democracy system. 

The politicians have taken too much credit for their existence. It’s time we cut them down to size, and demand that they work for the people. 

And if it has to be done via a minority government, so let it be. Let them slug it out and try to deliver the best for the rakyat. 

Otherwise, we vote them out in the next round. Nobody should remain kebal anymore. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate news editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition